Investing

Goodbye, Florida? Rethinking where to retire in a climate-changing world

Whether planning a move or staying put, here are some ways retirees can identify a more sustainable community.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

This story is part of The Cost of Climate Change, CNET's coverage of how the changing climate impacts a range of financial issues.

Thanks to its tax breaks, bright skies and lack of snow, seniors have been flocking to Florida for generations. The Sunshine State continues to be one of the top residential spots for retirees, home to one in five people aged 65 or older. Of the top 10 best places to retire per U.S. News and Report, eight are Florida locales (though it's worth noting that climate change is not part of the publication's criteria).

The trend comes as no surprise when you consider all of Florida's perks -- including some significant financial incentives. Residents pay no state income tax, and, for its considerable retired population, that means no tax on pension income or distributions from retirement accounts like a 401(k) or an IRA. And don't forget: Social security income is also tax-free.

But there may be clouds approaching. As Florida confronts intensifying weather risks, like heat waves and severe flooding, the costs of climate change may soon outweigh the benefits of retiring in the state.

A recent study by the nonprofit Resources for the Future recently examined specific climate threats facing Florida over the next 20 years. Its conclusion: coastal flooding, tropical storms and hotter temperatures may increase health and mortality risks, especially for those 65 and older. 

"In the scientific community, there is strong agreement that all of these risks will increase," says Daniel Raimi, co-author of the study. "But there is considerable uncertainty about the magnitude of the increase. An important element is how quickly we are able to adapt to a changing atmosphere and a changing ocean. The quicker we adapt, and the smarter we adapt, the lower the risks will be." 

Adapting starts with building awareness. Whether you plan to stay where you live now or move to a new destination, here are some ways to discover if a retirement locale is, indeed, sustainable. 

How livable is the community?

The AARP Public Policy Institute publishes a Livability Index, which ranks US neighborhoods based on key services and amenities. These include access to clean air, water and transportation as well as civic engagement and affordable housing -- features that are important to everyone, but especially to aging Americans who may be living on a budget and requiring assistance. 

The Index's top-scoring large communities include San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. Among smaller communities, many in Wisconsin ranked in the top 10, such as Fitchburg, Sheboygan, La Crosse and Sun Prairie.

Is there a current plan to deal with natural disasters? 

While a community can't prevent a weather emergency, it can do its best to prepare and that's an important factor when choosing where to live, especially as we age. Something worth investigating is whether the community has in place what's called a multihazard mitigation plan to deal with natural disasters.

You can check to see if your area has up-to-date, FEMA-approved, multihazard mitigation plans in place by visiting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's portal. It provides status reports on FEMA-approved plans in various communities. FEMA also tracks communities that are making efforts to mitigate climate risk. On its website, for example, it praises Nashua, New Hampshire, which updated its resilience planning to include "wetland, flood protection and stormwater management ordinances to protect future flood zones, and expand flood zone buffers." Nashua was recently ranked one of the top 100 places to live in the United States.

There is some good news for Florida. Much of the state appears to be covered by up-to-date mitigation plans approved by FEMA. But be sure to also check with the local county offices to verify status and ask for more information. FEMA's website lists Sumter County, which has the highest percentage of residents aged 65 and older in the nation per the census, as having an expired mitigation plan. But when I spoke to David Casto, the county's director of emergency management, he said that while the plan has been expired since earlier this year, the county is working now to gain the necessary board approvals to regain an "approved" status on FEMA's website. "The state and FEMA counterparts have given their blessing [to our plan]," says Casto. "We now need to go back to the municipalities and other stakeholders for their input. Because of COVID these meetings were set aside for a while."

How robust is the social infrastructure? 

As we age, and our health and mobility decline, it's especially important to live somewhere that has systems in place to connect and support residents in times of crisis -- including weather-related disasters. "With respect to a community's resilience and ability to bounce back, it is important to look for social infrastructure," says Jana Lynott‌, senior policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

This is not always easy to assess before living in an area, Lynott says, but you may find clues on a town's website. "See how the town supports the community," she says. "Are there civic or neighborhood associations? Is there a county government that provides a straight line of communication on issues related to crime, parks and recreation and various events?"

It's also worthwhile to keep an eye out for multigenerational programming and whether events provide accessibility for older residents. Are people able to come together in safe ways and not be isolated? Are there areas where people with different needs can participate comfortably? These are all clues as to how mindful a town may be of its aging population.